University Hospital's Heart & Vascular Institute screens first responders in Columbia County

The long thin dark gap on the sonogram screen is actually a good thing for firefighter James Thomas.

“All right, you’re good,” said vascular technologist Michelle Givens, after checking his carotid arteries for potentially dangerous plaque.

“That’s the only good news I’ve gotten so far,” Thomas said.

He and other emergency service workers in Columbia County were screened Thursday for potential risk factors for cardiovascular disease by a team from University Hospital’s Heart & Vascular Institute. The hospital is targeting first-responders this month because they are at higher risk than the general public.

A study of Milwaukee Police Department retirees, for example, found a 60 percent higher incidence of cardiovascular disease compared to their peers, as well as much higher rates of risk factors like high cholesterol and being overweight or obese. There are probably a number of explanations, starting with the very nature of the job, said Allison Hillman, the heart attack and stroke prevention coordinator for University Heart & Vascular Institute.

Diet and lack of exercise or activity for long stretches might also be culprits.

That was no shock to Pam Tucker, the director of Columbia County Emergency and Operations Division.

“You eat on the run, you don’t sleep normal hours,” she said. “There is nothing normal about any of these jobs.”

Tucker was getting her own plaque scan as part of the screening, a test she normally doesn’t get as part of her checkups. If there is a problem, Tucker said she wants to know about it early.

“The sooner that you find out you’ve got a problem, the better your chances are of getting that problem taken care of,” she said.

That is the point of doing the screenings, which continue with emergency workers in North Augusta next week and eventually include similar agencies in Augusta. Doing the plaque scans, for instance, can show what the extent of the disease is so far, Hillman said.

“That’s why it is great to do it on people in this age group because there is still plenty of time to turn around those problems,” she said.

A similar screening last August at University is already paying off for North Augusta Public Safety Director John C. Thomas. His brother died months earlier at age 44.

“It kind of got my attention,” said Thomas, who is not related to firefighter Thomas. John Thomas changed his diet, adding more vegetables and cutting down on fat. He is also walking and running more and has dropped more than 20 pounds.

“It’s incumbent upon everybody to look at what they’re doing and the job they’re involved in to try to help themselves just live better,” he said. “I feel a whole lot better, that’s for sure.”

If the screenings next week convince one of his people to make changes that prevent a heart attack or stroke, “then we’ve done our job,” Thomas said.

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